Learning with Renee

The first time I taught was at a literacy council in Chester, PA. This organization was geared towards adults who were illiterate, could not speak English, disabled, or wanted to start over. One of my classmates’ mothers was a chairperson in this organization, and she told me that once I turned 18, I could volunteer as a literacy teacher for an illiterate adult. Obviously, I was ecstatic. 18 years old and I could get my first shot at teaching? It sounded too good to be true.

When my 18th birthday came and went, I called the woman who ran the organization, informing her that I was a high school senior who wanted to be a teacher in their Adult Basic Education program. She said she was delighted that someone so young wanted to help out, and gave me the date and time for the mandatory 10 hours of training I would need to complete to be certified in ABE. I thanked her, hung up the phone, and jumped in my car to do a dry run to the location of training so I’d know exactly where to go.

Literacy training was eye opening. When I entered the room where my session was, I saw about 15 people sitting at the tables. The average age of the group was about 65. They probably thought I was someone’s grandchild they were forced to bring! I sheepishly slipped inside and found a folder with my name on it, and took a seat next to a kind looking man with thin grey hair and thick wire glasses, who spoke with a creak in his voice. His name was Andrew, and he had just retired the past year from his job of 42 years as a banker. We worked together in role-playing teacher and student to learn the methods of teaching adults.

At the close of the last day of training, I watched my classmates get packets of information on their students and textbooks they would need to work with them. Instead of a packet, I got a piece of paper that simply stated that I had successfully completed training. I asked them why this was, and they told me that I could not commit to six months of teaching because  had to go away to college. Therefore, I couldn’t be matched with a student.

I thought my one chance to try teaching was foiled, but then I got a call the next day from a woman named Gwen, who was a GED English teacher at the council. She told me she heard about my situation, and she wanted to give me a chance to teach. She had a GED student named Renee, a 26 year old woman who was developmentally disabled, and never attended high school. Gwen proceeded to ask me, would I be interested in teaching her one on one? I almost screamed “YES!”

I walked into the council the next week and the volunteer coordinator led me into a classroom to introduce me to Renee. She was a tall, skinny, African-American girl (she looked much younger than 26), with short frizzy hair and large dark welts and scars on her face. It looked like she’d been in a fire. But she smiled hugely, showing me big white crooked teeth, and kindly asked me if I was her new teacher. I told her yes, almost teary with joy, and she came forward and hugged me. She smelled like old coffee and cigarettes, but I didn’t mind. I had my student.

For four months, I worked with Renee, helping her with comprehension, definitions, spelling, and learning new words. It was tiring work to try to teach someone who really should have learned all of this twenty years ago. But I kept good patience and didn’t rush her. There were days when she wouldn’t have single answer correct on her homework, and I would spend our entire lesson going over it with her. There were times when she had every answer correct and we would fly through the next exercise. There was one time where she told me she wanted to write a letter to her brother, who lived in New York. She was worried he would see that she couldn’t spell, and think she hadn’t gone back to school. I told her we could meet up at a special time and write the letter together, so he would see that she had made improvement in her literacy skills, which she most definitely had.

There’s nothing more gratifying then when you know your student is benefitting from you. I haven’t seen Renee since then, but I’m hoping to return to apply my new knowledge in the field of teaching, and see my first student again.

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